Stolen Valor Act and Congressional Medal of Honor

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States. Generally it is presented to its recipient by the President of the United States of America in the name of Congress.  The Stolen Congressional Medal of Honor law was enacted to specifically prohibit persons from falsely claiming they had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Xavier Alvarez attended his first public meeting as a board member of the Three Valley Water District Board he introduced himself as: “I’m a retired marine of 25 years.  I retired in the year 2001.  Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  I got wounded many times by the same guy.”  Lying was a habit for Alvarez as he also lied when he said that he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico.  However, when Alvarez lied that he held the Congressional Medal of Honor he violated a federal criminal statute, the Stolen Valor Act.

Congressional Medal of Honor

Alvarez was charged with violating the Stolen Valor Act and entered a conditional guilty plea of guilty and appealed.  The appeal went to the U. S. Supreme Court, which held in U. S. v. Alvarez that the Stolen Valor Act constituted a content-base restriction on free speech in violation of the First Amendment. The distinguishing feature of the Stolen Valor Act from other laws that target false statements was that it targeted falsity and nothing more.  Restrictions on speech based on content are presumed to be invalid and the government bears the burden of showing their constitutionality.

The Supreme Court has only allowed content based restrictions on speech for a few historic categories of speech like incitement, obscenity, defamation, speech integral to criminal conduct, so-called “fighting words,” child pornography, fraud, true threats, and speech presenting some grave and imminent threat the Government has the power to prevent.  The opinion in Alvarez makes it very clear that the Supreme Court is not going to carve out any more exceptions to the Free Speech Clause of the Constitution no matter how compelling the circumstances.

U. S. Supreme Court

I have suggested in an earlier blog that a compelling argument could be made for an exception that would prohibit hateful picketing by the Westboro Baptist Church at the funerals of veterans.  The Courts opinion in Alvarez mentions the Westboro Baptist Church case decided in 2011 as an example where it declined to carve out an exception to free speech leading me to now believe that the Court will not make an exception for hateful picketing  by Westboro Baptist Church at the funerals of veterans despite my earlier hopes.

Local government officials would be best served by working on problems they can impact or at least wait until we get the final word on hateful picketing at the funeral of a veteran.

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